Behaving Yourself in a Dull Market

June 19, 2018
After many years helping clients, we’ve come to believe that we offer more of financial therapy than anything else.   And yet, “behavioral finance” (or how people react to money-related situations) is something that is woefully lacking in the Certified Financial Planner™ curriculum, although this is an area so critical to personal financial success that it ought to be part and parcel of everyone’s understand of money, and especially investing.  When the topic of ‘adverse investing behavior’ comes up, you might first think of how people react in a market decline, but unproductive behavior can also arise in tepid market periods as well.

Case in point could be the general investor’s viewpoint of portfolio returns so far this year.  Lately we’ve been speaking with some clients who have conservatively-invested accounts and are a bit perplexed at the low-no growth of their account values so far this year.  For many investors, 2017 was a banner year where both stock funds and bond funds may have exceeded expectations and without the pesky side-effects normally associated with investing, such as volatility.  

This year, however, is a different story.  With steadily-rising interest rates, some bond funds have been experiencing challenges in delivering positive returns so far.  Volatility has returned to the stock market as well, with events like rising interest rates, tariffs and trade wars, and the usual corporate news cycle affecting index movements on a weekly or daily basis.  As a result, investors who have grown a bit complacent about normal risk and volatility may be getting a little antsy when their monthly or quarterly statements don’t show the same kind of appreciation they remember from last year.

So some investors are calling to ask, “Why hasn’t my account gone up yet this year?  Shouldn’t we be doing something (different)?”  Which is akin to planting seedlings in your garden, throwing down some water and then after a week or so, just staring at the plants and shouting; “Don’t just sit there. Grow!”

In these situations, the primitive part of the human brain has taken over.  Whether out of fear, greed or another gut reaction, the inclination grows stronger to “take control and do something”.  That is when an understanding of investor behavior is useful, but one that even personal financial professionals (and most of Wall Street itself, usually) loses a handle on.    Scott Adams, author and creator of the comic strip “Dilbert” once wrote: “If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.”  When not much is happening with your investment account, the price you may have to pay is patience and uncertainty.  Many won’t and end up taking a wonderfully-allocated portfolio and “tweaking” it or changing a great long-term strategy that could prove ruinous in the end.   Sitting on your hands may be a boring recommendation and goes against that voice emanating from the primitive brain, but could end up being your best personal finance idea this summer.